California Southern University: You mentioned that the vision for what would ultimately become GOGI, began to come into focus the moment you first saw the prison yard at Terminal Island. What did you see?
Coach Mara Leigh Taylor: Possibility. I saw tremendous possibility. Out here in the free world, we have so many distractions. There are bills to pay, iPads to buy, mobile phones that are ringing. There’s not a lot of time to be peaceful, still, to pay attention to the silence, to learn, and to ponder possibilities. We’re just too busy in this rat race. But there, inside the prison walls, I sensed the unlimited possibility of the human mind and of its potential for growth. I thought about what was possible inside confinement, without the pressures and distractions of house and car payments
CalSouthern: Is the GOGI as initially envisioned similar to the GOGI of today, or has it changed and evolved significantly?
Coach Taylor: The core of it is exactly the same; the initial vision 100 percent on the money. But we’re only one one-hundredth of what we will be.
GOGI keeps unfolding true to the original vision or intention. The mechanisms we employ have evolved. But our original vision to empower individuals with tools to make positive decisions; that remains—exactly—our vision today. The systems and platforms we use have developed over time, but the core ideals remain precisely the same.
CalSouthern: You often stress that GOGI is not a “program.” Why is this distinction so important to you?
Coach Taylor: You and I could do a program and then we would leave the program. And it might have been effective in altering our behavior for a period of time. But when we embrace a culture and truly change our perspective, we’ve made a change for life. While GOGI can be done in a program format, it’s designed to be a way of life, an alternative culture. It’s the language of positive decision-making. It can be done in a program, and it can assist or complement other programs, but it’s really, at its foundation, it’s an acknowledgement of the positive decision-making potential in all humans.
CalSouthern: GOGI relies solely upon donations and volunteer support. Why do you choose to operate autonomously, rather than seeking out more financial sponsorship or backing?
Coach Taylor: When we’re working with inmates and they know that we are all volunteers, they understand that our commitment comes from the heart, rather than from a job or a paycheck. Also, by being autonomous, we remain independent of the temptation to do something that’s not really at our core. We don’t have our hand out for a government contract that may come with a requirement that we use this form or that form or do our work this way or that way—we can remain true to who we are.
CalSouthern: Have you had to make some difficult choices regarding dollars and compromise?
Coach Taylor: Sure. We’re constantly tempted by offers of financial support that come with conditions that we modify or alter what we do. Now don’t get me wrong, I love money: it allows us to print more books and educational materials and to expand, but when it comes with caveats, or expectations of certain things that we know are not organic to GOGI, it’s not going to work with us on any level. We prefer the slow growth that we’ve enjoyed to this point. And now facilities are getting it. They’re beginning to understand us. More and more are sponsoring GOGI programs, or ordering books, or letting us in to speak with inmates. It’s just a matter of holding firm so that we can define who we are.
CalSouthern: Could you describe that “slow growth” for us?
Coach Taylor: I remember when I decided to begin encourage written correspondence from inmates. I didn’t feel comfortable with them writing me at home—these are people who don’t make very good decisions, you know—so I went down to the post office and got a post office box. There were three sizes to choose from. I optimistically picked the big one.
For months, I would stop by the post office daily and the box was empty. Empty. Empty. Then one day, I opened it up and there it was: my first letter from an inmate. (I still have that letter, by the way.)
It was that one inmate that opened GOGI at one facility, the California Men’s Colony, near San Luis Obispo, California. From there it spread to the Solano, Soledad, Taft, and on and on. That one prisoner—Danny Allen, who we are still in contact with and who is still doing GOGI—was the impetus for the tens of thousands of letters that we’ve received. We haven’t printed a single flier or done any promotion. The growth has been entirely, 100-percent based on word of mouth from the prisoners and their families. It’s truly extraordinary.
CalSouthern: You are quick to point out that the 12 Tools of GOGI are, in some respects, nothing new. If so, why are they so effective?
Coach Taylor: At GOGI, we listen far more than we talk. And it’s by listening that we have developed effective tools. The GOGI tools have been developed by the inmates themselves. And they are delivered by inmates, to inmates, in their language, and in a way that they can understand. All the psychological reasoning, all of the testing, and all of the university studies are not as effective, in my opinion, as going directly to the individual and asking them what they think the problem is and what they think the solution is. It’s that simple.
CalSouthern: You’ve spoken of witnessing “miracles” that have occurred when people take the GOGI tools to heart and apply them in their lives. Can you elaborate?
Coach Taylor: With each individual, when the transformation happens, you can sense it. It’s palpable. It’s like a tipping of a scale and when that tipping occurs, when enough of those neurological pathways are clicking for the positive, it’s a permanent perspective shift. That, in my mind, is miraculous. It’s a change for the positive that can’t be revoked or taken away. It’s there forever. Even if the individual encounters struggles in their life, say with their sobriety, the high will never be the same: they know too much now. They can never be as happy in their old behavior as they once were, so they return to the GOGI way.
Miracles? I think of career heroin users now employed and working with children. Third-generation gang members who suffer beatings and broken bones for refusing to leave GOGI and return to their gangs upon release. That’s a miracle. We have women getting their children back. Extraordinarily violent men who write us and describe incidents that they were able to solve with discussion—or simply walk away from—when those incidents would certainly have resulted in violence (and perhaps additional time in prison) before. There are too many to mention. They happen every minute of our day.
CalSouthern: What are some of the most daunting challenges you face in your work with the incarcerated?
Coach Taylor: A system that is simply not set up to support or sustain lasting change in the human being. Our prison systems were not created—despite the fact that the name is used so frequently—as “corrections” facilities so much as they were created to stop bad behavior and segregate bad actors. And this is absolutely necessary. We have to stop bad behavior. But the idea that our prison system—as it is—is a place of correction is just fundamentally flawed.
Of course, there are people behind bars that are of extreme danger to everyone. There are some who should never again see the light of day. But most of the 2.3 million behind bars are extremely poor decision makers, addicts and alcoholics. Those individuals are locked up with the downright evil and the mentally ill, and they are treated, for the most part, in the same manner. It’s so difficult to learn positive decision-making skills in an environment that breeds criminality and a crime-based mentality. So we’re doing these 2.3 million—and their families—a disservice by punishing them in a way that does not improve their circumstances upon release. We’re creating a worse situation.
As a nation, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves how we can best entice, encourage, and promote good behavior—once the bad behavior is stopped. I think it all begins with teaching positive decision-making tools. And that’s why we do what we do.
CalSouthern: When you dream about GOGI and its potential, what do you see?
Coach Taylor: Every prison in the United States with a GOGI housing module, a place where GOGI inmates live, with trained leaders, and inmates who are doing their time in service to the prison community. Then, when they are released, they continue to lead humble lives of service to the outside community.
CalSouthern: Are GOGI volunteers well received by prison staff?
Coach Taylor: Prison staff members are trained to promote safety within the facilities and compliance among the inmates. It’s extremely inconvenient to have some bright-eyed, smiley, do-gooder volunteers from the community, parading through their yard, teaching things to inmates. It’s inconvenient, it’s dangerous (in their eyes), and it’s inconsistent with their training. The way we design our prison systems and how we train staff is inconsistent with the goals of rehabilitation and reduction of recidivism.
Some facilities are beginning to understand and trust us and our motives. I recently established a two-year GOGI pilot program at the Los Angeles County Jail, where more than 300 detained women are housed. L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca has been wonderfully supportive. At the Salt Lake County Jail—Utah’s largest jail facility—GOGI studies have been so popular and effective among the female inmate population that now law enforcement officials are teaching GOGI to the male prisoners.
We’re getting there, but it is a slow process.
CalSouthern: You’ve mentioned that the GOGI tools were developed by prisoners. But what role did you—and your psychological education and experience—play?
Coach Taylor: I listened first, and then researched and linked proven cognitive behavioral modalities to their language. With the group of men at Terminal Island that helped me with the first six tools, I would have such in-depth conversations with them, then rush to the computer or library to research applicable psychological theories, and then simplify and integrate the theory with the tools as articulated by the prisoners. That’s how we developed the tools.
CalSouthern: Do you think the tools have application to other populations?
Coach Taylor: We are more a responsive organization than a proactive one. We respond to interest and to requests from people that are curious about what we do. If we’re approached by a third-grade teacher who wants help developing a curriculum for her kids, we’re going to say yes.
We think we provide a missing link. Traditionally, the church was the institution that taught ethics and core human values. But increasing separation of church and state—the motivation for which is laudable—ethics and positive decision-making skills have been lost along with the religious and spiritual principles. And for many, they don’t receive these skills at home. Certain core values are not being imparted to a portion of our society.
Regarding other applications of GOGI tools, we have an inmate who is a Viet Nam War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When he came home, he got hooked on drugs, committed a murder and, because he had a military background, he was sentenced very harshly. So he’s now in prison for the rest of his life for a murder that he committed post-Vietnam.
We’re working with him to develop GOGI materials for warriors suffering from PTSD. I’m very hopeful he will do so. I have a former gang member who’s writing a book that applies GOGI decision making to the gang mentality. We have a former OB/GYN—she’s also in prison for the rest of her life—creating a book relating GOGI concepts to issues faced by pregnant women.
So in many cases, our best resources are incarcerated individuals. They have the most time, the fewest distractions, and they are so often extremely intelligent and gifted. It’s consistent with my original vision: prisons can be think tanks.
CalSouthern: Do you continue to maintain a private practice?
Coach Taylor: I do just enough to sustain an existence, and I find it can nicely complement my GOGI work. In many respects, it’s all the same stuff. Problems are problems and bad decisions are bad decisions. For some it’s choosing heroin, for others it’s inconsistencies in their marriage. We as humans get upset when we get off our purpose, which I believe is to be good and kind and generous—not to be greedy and have distractions get in the way of our spiritual growth.
But GOGI swallows about 90 percent of my time. So I choose the clients I work with very carefully to make sure that the work I do with them will be consistent with my GOGI work. I don’t want to be taken off task.
CalSouthern: How would you define your “task”?
Coach Taylor: My task, I believe, is to create as many intellectual properties for GOGI as possible, so that long after I have left this earth, there is plenty of room for the organization to grow. I want to communicate the principles as many ways as possible, to coin as many catch phrases as I can that resonate with different demographics, and to create games that children can play and learn GOGI principles. I want to simplify and vary the presentation enough so that as many people as possible can be empowered with the tools they need to make positive decisions. Ultimately, my hope is that GOGI can grow in its reach and effectiveness so that maybe—just maybe—we can contribute to a radical shifting of the experience of being human.